To paraphrase Tony Bennett doesn’t seem fair, but I have to say that my heart sank when I made my brief stop in San Francisco to check out the latest retail.

Maybe it was the fact that I had seen the Macy’s on Union Square when it was brand new (it is looking a bit tired now) – or the memories of the great Levi’s flagship just opposite. The famous curved escalators leading up to Nordstrom had seemed far more romantic the first time I saw them. And not much had changed in the Whole Foods on 4th Street since I did my study tour prior to winning the Macro Wholefoods account.

Why were there were so many pan-handlers (read beggars) around the CBD ? I pondered this question as I extracted a few dollars from the wallet to appease the more aggressive of them.

Williams Sonoma gave me a temporary lift in spirits – must have been the delicious aroma of pumpkin muffins in the store. Was it real or a faux fragrance? I am not sure? But somehow the $25,000 price tag on the heritage styled stove didn’t make sense when I thought of the beggars on the streets of San Fran who represented the reality of one in ten Americans who are unemployed.

To be fair, Westfield is investing in an upgrade to their San Francisco Centre in Market Street but most of the retailers in the mall looked like they could do with the same treatment. There were however, some standouts. The American Eagle store looked fresh and there were new stores for Zara and H&M since my last visit – no doubt causing some concern for the American fashion retailers. I loved the Abercrombie & Fitch store which was a total experience in dark grey tones, throbbing music, dramatic lighting, great merchandising and their famously sensual in-store graphics showing more six packs than a Dan Murphy’s. And surprise – the prices were quite reasonable too!

Back on the street, however, my spirits sank again. Something was missing from the San Francisco retail heart. Some of the vibrancy had gone – and the signs of economic turmoil were everywhere to be seen. I realised with a jolt how susceptible retailing is to economic cycles – and how deep seated the effects of the GFC could be on retailers. This was more than some markdowns or a bigger Stocktake Sale could fix.

San Fran is not exactly a poor city yet the combination of a weak economy and the underlying demographic shifts In the US were clearly having a major impact on this once thriving retail precinct. It made me reflect on how bad retail conditions must be in less affluent areas of the US, and how fortunate we Australians are to have escaped the economic ravages that I was clearly witnessing here.

A few hours later, winging our way to Minneapolis I felt a sense of relief that I was leaving this beautiful, but sad, city. I truly had lost my heart in San Francisco but I fervently hoped that my next stop would give me some more pleasure.

I looked forward to another visit to the Mall of America – the nation’s largest shopping centre, and a favourite place for me to catch up on where mainstream retail in America was up to.

But more about that next week.